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Experts encourage vaccination as COVID trends upwards ahead of flu season

Confirmed COVID-19 cases in Michigan have been trending upward for the last five weeks, according to state data, mirroring national trends, and local health officials are encouraging Michiganians to get the newly approved COVID-19 booster shots, which protect against the virus’ latest mutations.

“Every week there are more and more cases and I do expect we’re going to see this trend continue,” said Dennis Cunningham, medical director of infection prevention at Henry Ford Health. “That also matches national data, which is showing a slow but steady increase in COVID week to week.”

With Michigan on the verge of flu season, which typically starts in October or November, experts warn that coinciding surges of respiratory illnesses may overwhelm hospitals.

“If we were to have … a heavy flu season, and flu was hitting us hard at the same time as another surge of COVID, that could really overwhelm hospitals who you know, we’re all busy right now,” Cunningham said.

There were 6,071 confirmed and probable cases of COVID in Michigan the week ending Sept. 12, according to state data.

Andrew Cox, director of the Macomb County Health Department, said he anticipates significant respiratory illnesses in the fall and winter.

“Really the big three there are influenza, RSV (respiratory syncytial virus) and COVID-19,” Cox said. “It has a lot to do with the strains and the illnesses themselves and how much they’re able to … move throughout the population.”

A population’s protection against the illnesses also is a key factor in the severity of a flu or COVID-19 surge, Cox said.

“Stay up to date with your vaccines that way you’re protected regardless of what type of season it is, you’re ready and protected,” Cox said.

The flu is particularly harmful to the elderly or those with chronic conditions, Cunningham said.

Vaccines and good hygiene practices are the most useful tools in combatting infection, Cox said.

“Flu and COVID are primarily spread by droplets. … And as the weather is getting colder, we’re not all outside. We’re in rooms. Right now kids are in the classroom … so it’s a lot easier to spread things,” Cunningham said. “We know that young kids bring them home and give it to the grandparents, to the parents, to other relatives. So vaccines can protect the individual but they can also protect the family or the larger society.”

New COVID-19 vaccines

The increase in COVID-19 cases started around five weeks ago, Cunningham said. It was “a little bit before kids went back to school, but I’m sure that kids being in school is contributing to part of it,” he said.

“This week, we now have some new COVID vaccines that just got approved for use and that should give much better protection against the omicron variants we’re seeing in our state,” Cunningham said. “As we’re starting to see cases of COVID increase, I think this vaccine coming out right now is perfect timing.”

There are dozens of COVID-19 omicron subvariants, and immunity may wane for people who were infected or vaccinated in the past, Cunningham and Cox said. The latest booster vaccine targets the XBB line of the Omicron variant, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“The other vaccines we’ve been using, they are no longer available for us because omicron has shifted so much,” Cunningham said. “The spike protein, how the virus attaches to our cells, it’s changed so much that the previous vaccines don’t work well against it.”

New research shows that vaccination can help prevent the spread of COVID-19, even after testing positive. People with risk factors for severe disease, including the elderly and those with chronic medical issues, should get vaccinated in addition to young, healthy people, Cunningham said.

“If you’re a young adult and healthy, chances are you’re probably going to be OK. But that’s no guarantee, so the vaccine it’s kind of a little bit of an extra safety net,” Cunningham said. “If you get sick after you get the vaccine you don’t cough up as many viruses as someone who’s not been vaccinated, but there is some benefit to helping protect other people.”

COVID-19 also is notably different from the common cold, said Corewell Health …

“I still have patients in and out of the hospital for COVID, we don’t do that with the cold,” said Matthew Sims, director of infectious disease Research for Corewell Health. “I have patients who have long COVID. The common cold doesn’t give you lingering symptoms for months to years.”

New protections against RSV

RSV is a common virus and typically causes mild cold-like symptoms, according to the CDC. It can be severe and even life-threatening for the elderly and young children.

An RSV vaccine was approved this year for use in adults aged 60 years and older.

“With the older people … it (the vaccine) will protect them from the virus and decrease the chance they’ll get it (and) decrease the severity if it breaks through,” Sims said.

While RSV vaccines have not been approved for children yet, they have been approved for pregnant women in the past year, according to the Food and Drug Administration.

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